There are a number of ‘traditional myths’ associated with the birth of Christ: three wise men; three gifts; a baby born in a stable; “no room in the inn”; Jesus born (in haste) the night the family arrived in Bethlehem. These ‘traditions’ are so deeply ingrained in popular culture that they usually pass without question; but even when questioned, the questions do more to direct our thoughts towards what actually happened, than provided any serious reason to doubts about the truth of Christianity.
About 200 years after the birth of Jesus, an anonymous Christian wrote an account of the birth of Jesus; it is called The Protevangelium of James, and is an apocryphal Gospel; James, the brother of Jesus, however, had nothing to do with its production. Furthermore, the author was not a Jew, and, like most western Christians, and most western atheists, knew nothing of the geography or traditions of the Jewish people. Perhaps the term ‘novel’ would be a reasonable description. This novel, however, is one of the sources1 for many of our most popular and (unfortunately) cherished ‘myths’ of the Christmas story, but it is an imaginary expansion of the gospel story, not the gospel account itself.
In the novel, for example, as Mary and Joseph near Bethlehem, Mary speaks to Joseph and says, “Joseph, take me down from the ass, for the child within me presses me, to come forth.” On hearing this, Joseph leaves Mary in a cave and continues to Bethlehem for assistance with the birth. On returning, Joseph and the ‘midwife’ find the baby already born, and, first a dark cloud and then a bright light over the cave. A woman then appears – her name is Salome – and is told by the midwife that a virgin has given birth; Salome however, does not believe this account, upon which her hand turns leprous – and so the story continues: an angel suddenly appears and tells Salome to touch the child, she does, and her hand is healed; the story meanders on.
There are any number of problems in our popular understanding of the Christmas story which persist, not least what we miss as well as what is assumed. And they persist because of our lack of knowledge of Jewish culture – too much of the popular Christmas story isn’t in the text of the Gospels, and the longer popular myths remain unquestioned, the more they become ingrained.
Christians should welcome it, then,if atheists challenge such ‘myths: myths like the 25th December being the ‘birthday of Jesus’; and we should welcome it precisely because we can explain that the draughty stable, or cave; and the inn; and the heartless innkeeper; and the ‘homeless’ young parents; and the indifference of Bethlehem’s population; and the hasty birth, are myths too. And, as always, the true story is deeper and richer than all these myths combined.
1 “The source of this misinterpretation stems from approximately two hundred years after the birth of Jesus, when an anonymous Christian wrote an expanded account of the birth of Jesus that has survived and is called The Protevangelium of James”. Kenneth E. Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes Cultural Studies in the Gospels (SPCK:2008).